Bible Reading Isn’t Bible Study

Christians fail to complete Bible-reading plans for a variety of reasons:  forgetfulness, lack of time, the book of Leviticus, and so on.  However, to the list of usual suspects, there’s at least one more we should add.  In my experience, brethren are apt to end up in trouble if they approach each day’s reading the same way they would approach a study of the same text.

It makes sense that we would come to daily reading with this mindset.  It is, in fact, the dominant approach to God’s word among God’s people.  From my earliest youth, I was taught by godly parents about how to study the Bible.  I have been in innumerable Bible classes that went through the text one verse at a time, seeking to understand the meaning of each sentence, each phrase, before moving on to the next verse.

I think every Christian should know how to approach the text in this way, but as approaches go, it is slow and effortful.  It is also not the way that we normally consider texts in general.  When I’m reading a news story on MSN in the morning, I don’t weigh every clause in my mind.  I don’t pause at the end of every paragraph to make application to my daily life.  I zip through the thing in 90 seconds, come away with the gist, and move on to another story.  If I felt like I was supposed to sink massive effort into understanding those stories, I probably wouldn’t read any of them.

So too with Bible reading.  It takes a vast amount of mental energy to go through a single reading with a fine-toothed comb.  I study the Bible for a living, I’ve had all kinds of training and practice, and I still find it exhausting to dig down to the depths of a passage.

Multiply that expenditure of mental energy by 365, and the demand is a daunting one.  People who aren’t trained in textual analysis, who have all sorts of other activities that require concentration, will read laboriously for a few days and say to themselves, “I can’t go on doing this.”  They give up, convinced that there’s something wrong with them, when really their only problem is that they are engaged in daily Bible study rather than daily Bible reading.

Paradoxically, the road to better success leads through greater laziness.  It lies in learning not to pay attention to every little word and phrase in a daily reading.  Instead, we ought to be treating the Bible like an online news article.  We ought to be getting the gist and moving on.  If we find that our reading is becoming effortful, that’s probably a sign that we’re expending too much effort.

This will horrify some people.  They will reply, huffily, “Don’t you think that God’s word deserves our full attention???”  Well, yes, I do.  That’s why we should have Bible studies.  However, if we convert daily reading into daily study, we are reproducing the same pattern of inquiry in a less helpful context.

Bible study is great for depth.  However, it’s not nearly as good at breadth.  A verse-by-verse slog through Romans, unless the teacher is truly gifted, will not result in an appreciation of the flow of argument from Romans 3 to Romans 7.  Instead, that’s the sort of thing we’re more likely to pick up on when we are reading for the gist instead of studying for every tiny detail.  When we let our eyes lose focus a little bit, we start to see the forest the trees were hiding.

If we want to come to full appreciation of God’s will for us, this kind of understanding is extremely valuable.  There is certainly truth in an isolated verse of Scripture, but when we come to appreciate that verse in its context, we arrive at a deeper meaning.  In fact, we read the Bible according to the original intent of the authors and the Author.

The Holy Spirit did not prompt Paul to write Romans as a collection of 10-word spiritual aphorisms (though it is a tribute to the literary quality of Romans that it can bear up under such minute analysis).  Instead, Romans has a point, with a bunch of sub-arguments that support that point.  If all we ever do is work our way sequentially through the aphorism collection, we will almost certainly miss the point.  By contrast, the much lower-stress activity of reading is much more likely to lead us to it.

For those of you who are attempting a Bible-reading plan, then, don’t forget to be lazy readers!  If you find yourself gathering in your will to ferret out the meaning of a subordinate clause, stop at once.  Don’t feel responsible for understanding absolutely everything you just read.  Instead, read with a relaxed mind, open to whatever random insight commends itself to your attention.  You will pass by innumerable opportunities for close study, but you will also find yourself learning things you would never have discovered in any other way.

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